Success in the garden starts with healthy soil. Soil—as much as water and sunlight—determines whether plants thrive or die. Getting a soil test is the best way to find out your soil pH and soil health. Learn more about how to get a soil test—plus, learn three DIY soil tests.
Why Get a Soil Test?
Your soil needs to be able to provide nutrients to plants. Otherwise, your plants just won’t grow well. Having the right soil pH (level of acidity) means your plants can take up the necessary nutrients in the soil. If your pH is too high, many nutrients such as phosphorus and iron may become less available; if your soil pH is too low, it can be toxic to plants. Without healthy soil, it is very difficult to have a successful garden.
Another reason we test the soil is because we won’t need to rely on fertilizing the soil too much. If you start with healthy soil, you won’t need so much “fixing.” Before you start dumping on the lime and fertilizers, your first step should be taking a soil sample to send off for testing.
What Will a Soil Test Measure?
A good soil test will evaluate the basic texture of your soil—sand, silt, or clay—and determine its acidity—the pH level. The available amounts of nutrients, including magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium, will be calculated and recommendations will be made for raising each to the correct levels for optimum plant growth. Armed with this knowledge, you can make the proper improvements. Too much of a good thing can be just as harmful as too little so let your soil test be your guide.
How Often Do You Do a Soil Test?
For optimum plant growth, it is recommended to test your soil pH and nutrient status every 3 to 5 years. You can take soil samples at any time of the year, with fall being preferable. That way, you can get your results and make any fixes in time for spring.
Where to Get a Soil Test
Home test kits are available at gardening centers; they are not as accurate or thorough as professional testing through your local county extension office. And the good news is that your county extension soil test is usually free or low cost. Here’s a list of cooperative extension services by state.